AbstractThe prevalence of child sex offences is worsening worldwide (Bailey, 2021; Internet Watch Foundation, 2021), requiring police within England and Wales to prioritise their responses (National Policing Improvement Agency, 2009). To help gauge possible threats, various computer programmes have been developed which process the electronic communications of persons with child sexual interests (Rashid et al., 2013). Currently, research into such communications and technologies remains relatively nascent (Ibid). By identifying communicative features which correspond with persons’ offending tendencies, however, these investigative tools can potentially be improved.
Recently, a study of chatroom messages between persons with child sexual interests (i.e., McManus et al., 2015) found non-contact child sex offenders to discuss adult relationships significantly more than contact offenders. In addition, research into chatroom conversations between child sex groomers and their (presumed) victims (i.e., Chiu et al., 2018; Seigfried-Spellar et al., 2019) revealed significant linguistic differences between groomers who sought to commit contact offences and those who did not. As of yet, however, no study has examined whether child sex offending tendencies can be assessed from individuals’ vocabulary when communicating with persons sharing child sexual interests. By exploring this possibility, such findings could help refine methods for identifying and prioritising potentially dangerous persons. To build upon past research, therefore, the current study examined the general features within communications between individuals discussing child sexual interests (i.e., child sex discoursers). In turn, so did the present study search for (potential) links between persons’ child sex offender histories and their communicative themes and specific vocabulary.
Offering their assistance, West Yorkshire Police provided the study with the criminal records and computer mediated communications of 10 convicted child sex offenders. To identify indicators of criminal histories, this sample was sorted into three categories of increasing severity (i.e., Least Concerning Offenders (n=2), Moderately Concerning Offenders (n=6) and Extremely Concerning Offenders (n=2)). Through a combination of Content and Discourse Analyses, 47 communicative themes were identified, including the seven higher-order categories of: Condition, Sexual Interests, Claims, Fantasies, Pursuits, Caution and Justifications. Ultimately, while no statistical comparisons of identified themes between the study’s offender categories could be performed, numerous observations were made, including potential indicators of sex offending behaviours. Moreover, by incorporating linguistic analyses—in addition to examining offenders’ communicative themes—statistical tests were conducted on offenders’ vocabulary. By using software (i.e., Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (2015)) to sort and score the percentages of words categorised by function and (predetermined) themes, the study was able to compare the vocabulary used by the sample’s offender categories. In the end, said analyses revealed Extremely Concerning Offenders used significantly fewer verbs and displayed significantly more dominance (i.e., clout) than offenders without charges or convictions of attempting or performing physical child sex abuse (i.e., Least and Moderately Concerning Offenders).
Overall, the aforementioned results were considered encouraging, offering unique contributions to the field of research and demonstrating promise for investigative use. Although this study alone cannot assist police reliably identify or prioritise potentially dangerous persons, future research can build off the abovementioned methods and results to aid in such efforts. Ultimately, by continuing to examine the communicative themes and vocabulary of child sex offenders when communicating with likeminded others, such studies could promote the development of new and/or improved investigative computer programmes.
|Date of Award
|18 May 2023
|Carla Reeves (Main Supervisor) & Michelle Rogerson (Co-Supervisor)